Combining post-apocalyptic horror with psychological chamber drama, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night is a grim assessment of humans’ fear of death and how it can drive them to monstrous extremes.
Set in an unspecified dystopian future, the film presents us with a world ravaged by a highly contagious plague. Among its survivors is Paul, who has undertaken to protect his family in an isolated cabin. In doing so, he has imposed an austere set of rules, with one mandate emphasized above all others: Never, under any circumstances, are they to leave the cabin at night. During these hours, the red door that separates them from the outside world must remain locked. Paul’s son Travis, meanwhile, has recurring nightmares of approaching the gleaming red door to see what lies behind it.
But it is not a monster that comes knocking, as one might expect in a more conventional horror movie. The visitors that arrive are a family of three no different from Paul’s, who say they have come seeking water and refuge. Still, they are outsiders, and it’s with extreme guardedness that Paul allows Will, Kim and their son Andrew to stay, provided they strictly observe the household laws. The remainder of the film is about the deadly escalation of distrust that ensues when Travis mentions finding the red door unlocked one night and it is discovered that he and the other family’s son have become infected with the deadly virus.
With minimal narrative and high stakes, Shults constructs an unrelentingly tense viewing experience. Depriving us of flashbacks and backstory, he makes it impossible to place trust in any of the characters. Their paranoia becomes our own, as Shults drops us into their calculated game of survival. At first, Paul’s treatment of his visitors strikes us as excessively cruel – as he ties Will to a tree and interrogates him to make sure he isn’t hiding any infections or ulterior motives. But later, when Will appears to change his story, we wonder if Paul wasn’t crazy to suspect him of lying after all.
Travis is the only character whose inner world we glimpse. He is haunted by dreams of his plague-ridden grandfather, killed by Paul at the beginning of the film to ensure no one else would contract the disease, which communicate both his guilt and a premonition of his own eventual fate. Among Shults’ characters, Travis seems to fear death the most, possessing an almost psychic connection with it, yet he’s also the most emotionally sensitive. He takes pity on the strangers when they arrive, convincing his father to let them stay, and his desire to reach out past the barriers of distrust is evident.
As the film’s narrator, however, Travis is unreliable. His recurring nightmares become increasingly blurred with what actually unfolds inside the cabin. It is entirely possible that he merely dreamt finding the red door unlocked. But whether the red door was really opened (and if so who opened it) is less important than the point Shults seems to be making, which is how swiftly fear annihilates trust and human connection – how quick the families are to suspect one another once they perceive that the rules have been broken.
Numerous critics have noted how It Comes At Night evokes Shults’ earlier portrayal of vicious family dynamics in Krisha (2015), which are likewise catalyzed by the arrival of an outsider. Viewers of It Comes At Night will also find similarities to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which a father’s unbending quest to keep his son alive in a post-apocalyptic world frequently finds himself at odds with his son’s pleas to treat the strangers they encounter with empathy. Reflected in Shults’ bare-bones visuals and camerawork are The Road’s scant resources, scavenging survivors, abandoned boarded-up houses, and constant wariness.
But if McCarthy’s characters ultimately retain their humanity while calculating their survival, the same cannot be said for It Comes At Night, where man, with his fear of death and instinct to survive at any cost, proves to be the most precarious monster of all. The dark logic that opened the film with the killing of an infected family member reaches a second implied pinnacle at the end, as the camera lingers over an equally jarring scene.
In the colorless confines of Shults’ film, a single bright object stands out: the red door. Its hallucinatory quality and terrifying magnetism in the dream sequences seem like a clear nod to Kubrick, as do the eerie disembodied tracking shots that lead us down that hallway. At night, the cabin even takes on the architectural confusion and surreal claustrophobia of a maze, mirroring madness.
Like the boy who hallucinates the blood spilling through the red elevator doors in The Shining, Travis’s repeated gravitation toward the red door in his dreams serves as a premonition of the violence that will be unleashed once it is opened (or once it’s believed to have been.) After watching It Comes At Night, we realize that its final deadly crescendo actually has much less to do with the film’s unnamed plague than with the characters’ fear of it.